By Marina Campoy-LoVasco (’23)
When you listen to the debates, you might wonder, does this change anyone’s mind? The people who agree with one party will continue supporting them and those in support of the other side will continue to support their side as well. There is even a term to describe this sort of event, confirmation bias. We as people prefer both people and information that supports how we think, and so we disregard other ideas.
Confirmation bias fascinates researchers, and many experiments have been conducted around it. For instance, in a study conducted at Stanford, participants were provided with two studies with opposing views on capital punishment, one for and one against. Half of those participating were for capital punishment and the other half against. Although the sources’ reliability was unknown, the studies enhanced the opinions of the participants, pushing them further apart on the topic. Meanwhile, in a study featured in Nature Neuroscience, there was also a focus on what occurred when people agreed on ideas. In this scenario, participants were asked to give an asking price for different houses. They then proceeded to be paired off and underwent an MRI. During the MRI, they were presented with the prices that their partner had suggested. When the partners agreed, this gave them more confidence and they were willing to invest more money in the houses, especially when their partner said they would do so.
The reason for confirmation bias can be attributed to many different factors. Some cognitive scientists believe that its base originates in our evolution and capability to survive. Authors of the book The Enigma of Reason, Hugo Mericer and Dan Sperber explain that the ability of humans to cooperate has led to our survival, and the reason behind our ability to cooperate is confirmation bias. By conforming to ideas, one secured their place as part of the group, and became hostile to those not part of said group. The brain itself shows its reluctance to listen to different ideas. In the study explained above where participants were asked to determine the asking price for a house, an MRI was conducted on the brain when they were told the opinion of their partner. When their partner agreed, the posterior medial prefrontal cortex which plays a role in decision making, fluctuated increasingly at the different levels of agreement. When the patients disagreed, however, the brain gave no response, proving the deeply ingrained nature of humans to not even take note of opposing ideas.
So, what can one do to prevent themselves from falling into the trap of confirmation bias? Like any other bias, one must be able to first, realize that they do indeed have prejudice towards one way of thinking. After doing this, they should step back and analyze their way of thinking as though it was not their own which can lead to beneficial criticisms. In fact, in an experiment led by Mercier and colleagues, subjects were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning questions. They then had to explain their reasoning and were able to fix their responses if they thought there was a need to do so, fewer than fifteen percent changed their answers. In the final step, they were shown the answers of another subject who had disagreed and their own answers, but in reality the answers of the other person were their own. Near half realized the trick, but of those that did not realize the switch, almost 60% now rejected their responses which they had previously said had no errors. In thinking in this way, one can analyze their ideas to see if they truly understand them and agree with them. One should also attempt to comprehend those that may not agree in a similar way, without their own bias attacking every detail. All people doing this would be unrealistic though. Not all people are willing to step back and look at the reasoning behind their way of life, but people evolve and change, that’s the whole cause behind confirmation bias. By taking a step back and looking at what we are saying, we can change for the better.